MOUNT VERNON, Ohio — Driving across the knolls and swales of his Knox County farm — Scott Harmon points through the window of his Gator, showing dozens of varieties of grasses and trees that he’s established. Or, perhaps more accurately, they were established by nature.
In truth, there’s a little of both, but nature is mostly in charge.
“To the untrained eye, this looks like weeds,” says Harmon.
But if you look a little closer, you can see young trees emerging beneath the grass, and in the distance — where the ground has been left alone the longest — the trees are many feet taller than the grass and will one day become mature timber.
It’s all part of a popular farm and conservation program started 30 years ago, known as the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. The program pays eligible farmers to enroll in conservation-minded contracts, that meet targeted conservation goals, and keep the land out of crop production.
Making a difference
The program was started in 1985, under the Ronald Reagan administration — and has been re-authorized by Congress and the farm bill ever since.
John Block, an Illinois farmer who was also U.S. secretary of agriculture at the time, said CRP was a way of compensating landowners for conservation — but also for taking some land out of production — in an effort to boost farm prices.
”It’s serving two purposes very effectively,” said Block. ”I’m quite proud of it.”
Today, his family uses CRP on a little more than 150 of their 4,000-acre operation — mostly along creeks and rivers.
Block said the idea for CRP came from several people, but when leaders were discussing it, ”I was a champion pushing it.”
In its 30th year, CRP is credited with preventing more than 9 billion tons of soil erosion, and reducing about 95 percent of nitrogen runoff and 85 percent of phosphorus runoff — compared to tilled cropland.
- • •
At Harmon’s place, just east of Fredericktown, the program has reduced erosion, improved plant diversity, led to reforestation, and better wildlife habitat.
“It (CRP) maintains the biomass permanently, to keep the wind and rain from eroding the topsoil away,” Harmon said.
“I know that the reason we’ve got birds now, is because of the habitat,” he said.
Harmon and his son, Wyat, a senior at Fredericktown High School, are avid hunters. But they have a strong connection to agriculture, and chose CRP for more than just hunting.
Scott Harmon is a veterinarian and rents his crop ground to a neighboring dairy farmer. He used to dairy farm himself, and said CRP allows landowners to have “a balance” between crops and conservation land.
They keep farming their best ground, and leave the rest in conservation.
Harmon enrolled his first CRP ground about 17 years ago, focussing on highly erodible ground and ground that was the least farmable. Today, he has about 126 acres in CRP, and his earliest CRP ground is supporting a healthy stand of trees.
When he enrolled, he said the program was paying about the same as he could get for renting the ground. CRP rental payments are re-evaluated on a regular basis, to keep up with the changing markets.
“You’re not going to get rich from CRP, but nobody just gets rich from renting the ground out (to crops) either,” Harmon said.
In Crawford County, grain farmer Tom Miller uses CRP in some form across most of his 3,700-acre operation. All of the land he owns has a buffer strip, and so does about 90 percent of his rented ground.
“Conservation is a priority,” said Miller, who is also a 12-year board member of the Crawford Soil and Water Conservation District. “Whatever it takes to take care of the streams and lakes.”
He also uses cover crops and no-till, and believes the combination, along with CRP, has made a big difference in reducing nutrient loss and improving soil health. Only about 10 percent of his land drains north, into the Lake Erie watershed, with the rest going south, toward the Mississippi.
In Ohio, most water quality discussions have focussed on the Lake Erie watershed — but Miller said all water is important.
He said buffers could make an “immense impact” if more landowners would use them, especially in sensitive areas. But they’re just one tool among many, and Miller said it takes a combined effort — between rural and urban — to improve water quality.
- • •
Part of the reason more land isn’t in CRP is because of the cap, or limit on accepted acres. When the program was started, in 1985, the goal was to enroll about 40 million acres.
Over the years, the cap has been reduced during farm bill discussions, and in the 2014 farm bill, was reduced to a record low 24 million acres.
The lower cap resulted in a rejection rate in the most recent general enrollment, despite landowners who offered 1.8 million acres to the program.
Setting the cap is always a sensitive issue.
Kent Politsch, chief of public affairs for the Farm Service Agency in Washington, said part of the decrease in cap was due to higher commodity prices, which led to more demand by farmers for more acres.
Another reason was cost of the program. Because CRP pays landowners for selected acres— the government incurs a cost.
In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of the program is that farmers are being paid for not producing anything.
But that’s not entirely true. While CRP acres may not be producing field crops — they do produce trees and timber, native grasses, filters for nutrient movement, and wildlife habitat — all on land that farmers agree to give up.
Jim Inglis, director of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever — said CRP accomplishes all of its goals — including environmental improvement and wildlife habitat.
Ohio has experienced a wildlife resurgence over the past 10-15 years, especially with species like deer and turkey. According to the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Pennsylvania is the second-leading state in hunting-related retail sales, at $1.17 billion, and Ohio ranks sixth, with $714 million.
Inglis said CRP is especially important to Ohio and Pennsylvania, because of the water quality issues both states face. In Pennsylvania, the biggest concern is the Chesapeake Bay.
Making a sacrifice
Inglis said CRP can make a big difference in both watersheds — and if farmers are giving up land to that effect — they should be compensated.
“If were going to expect agriculture to address some of these issues then we should compensate the landowners,” he said.
Enrolling in CRP does not necessarily mean free money. The contracts, which typically last 10-15 years, usually include some kind of maintenance agreement.
In Harmon’s case, there are certain practices he’s allowed to do, and certain practices he’s required to do. Depending on the contract, some plots can be mowed a limited number of times per year, and invasive weeds can be sprayed.
He mows fire barriers between his grasses and woodlots, and he incurred costs when he first established the plots. Landowners can receive reimbursements for establishment costs, Harmon said, but not until the practices are in place, and receipts are shown.
“A landowner has to be aware that establishment costs are his responsibility,” Harmon said, adding “there’s definitely some maintenance involved.”
Harmon cautions small and hobby farmers to think critically about the CRP option — because while it can work on a small-scale, it can also require resources like mowing and farm machinery, and working capital, to keep the plots maintained.
- • •
The USDA is celebrating the 30th anniversary of CRP with a special website, that features success stories from across the country, and in Puerto Rico. In Pennsylvania, the featured farm is in Lancaster County, where Roger and Kandy Rohrer participate in the Chesapeake Bay Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP.
The CREP program is a variation of CRP, which uses state and federal resources to target conservation areas of top concern. The Rohrers have installed riparian buffers and a contour grass strip, aimed at improving water quality locally — and water that enters the rivers flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
“Before we bought our farm, there was no conservation work being done, no nutrient management, no stream fencing,” said Roger Rohrer. “We implemented CREP to be proactive, and did it as part of a system of best management practices. …”
The USDA also highlighted Gail Dunlap’s Pickaway County farm, where her family uses at least a half-dozen conservation practices on their seventh-generation farming operation.
“CRP is a blessing and it has helped me save our family farm by preserving the land and establishing wildlife habitat,” said Dunlap.
In a video celebrating the 30 years, FSA Administrator Val Dolcini called CRP “one of the most successful, federal conservation programs” that government has ever administered, because it benefits not only rural landowners — but also people in cities and urban places.
The program also benefits future generations — because it forces landowners to think long-term. Many landowners re-enroll their land after the 10-15 year period is up.
In Harmon’s case, he looks forward to the day someone can harvest mature timber from his CRP ground. That could still be 50 years away, and he’s not sure who will own the land by then.
But someone will, and someone will have that opportunity.
“This stuff will still be here,” he said.